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Hiking The Otter Trail, The Garden Route, South Africa (Part One)

I have been reading blog posts for weeks preparing for our hike on South Africa’s famous Otter Trail. One of the most frightening things that I learned were about baboons that can be found along the trail. I worried myself sick over baboons for the past two weeks. Having seen seen a baboons canine teeth, I think that they are scarier than a lion! 

The baboons have learned to associate backpacks with food. They will steal backpacks that are left unattended, and sometimes will attempt to take a backpack from women hikers. They generally don’t steal backpacks from men who they perceive as larger and stronger. I could just picture myself on a cliff overlooking the ocean, wrestling a baboon over my breakfast bars and my snacks. My obituary would read death by Snickers!

We spent the afternoon before our hike at a nice winery. I was completely relaxed. After arriving at our accommodation in Nature’s Valley, the baboons were the furthest thing from my mind. My only concern was which couch I wanted to claim to binge watch some Netflix.

We had rented a luxurious two bedroom apartment. Our host was an artist and we were in her guest apartment above her art studio. When we opened the patio doors to our private deck, we could hear the waves crashing on the shores of the cape.

This apartment would be our home before and after our hike. Our host offered to drop us off at the trail’s beginning at Storms River and to keep our car on her property until we returned. At the end of the hike we would have two nights to enjoy beautiful Nature’s Valley. That is if we made it back alive. 

My main concern was that we had spent the past six weeks eating and drinking, and we were in no condition for a strenuous hike. The day before, while we were shopping for the food we would carry for five days, I continually put back the “food” Ol would load in the shopping cart. 

I thought that we could use the week long hike to detox and get our health back on track. We needed nutritious but light food, as we had to carry all of our food for five days. We also had to carry  enough water for each day’s hike. I was shopping for protein bars and nuts, Ol was shopping for jelly beans and candy bars. He obviously had different plans. It ended up being a fair compromise. Especially since he was the one carrying the food. 

We did boil some eggs for a bit of protein for breakfast, but we were hiking without our trusty jet-boil stove. We also made our own trail mix. We purchased some hard cheeses and salami and crackers. We also bought some dry soup, hoping that we could bum some hot water from our trail mates. It’s not like we were going to starve. But, I knew that our trail mates would probably have much better meals planned.

The Otter Trail is an exclusive trail. Only twelve hikers are permitted to begin the hike each day. Reservations are taken one year in advance and the hike books up within minutes. We were lucky to fill a slot after a last minute cancellation.

Hikers must stay in huts in four designated areas along the way. Each hut sleeps six hikers in the provided bunk beds. The camp sites are situated on stunning and secluded beaches along the Indian Ocean. The only way to see these beaches is to hike in on the trail. 

There is another catch. Hikers must cross eleven streams and rivers to complete the hike. Three of the crossings are serious and can be dangerous.

I read about a group of hikers who had attempted the hike two years ago. Three hikers made it across the river safely, however, the rest of the group was swept out to sea and clung to rocks until a helicopter rescued them.

I began to worry that if the baboons didn’t get us, the tidal rivers could sweep us out to sea if we didn’t cross the river within an hour of low tide.

The night before our hike we packed and repacked. I checked and memorized the tide tables. It looked like we had two days where we would have to hike before daylight in order to reach the rivers before they became impassable. We would have a one hour window to make the crossing. Did I mention that we were out of shape? 

I usually toss and turn the night before a big hike. However, I surprised myself with a wonderful night’s sleep. We woke up early and walked down Nature Valleys beautiful sweeping beach. At 9:00 a.m. the bar/restaurant at the trails end opened and we indulged in a big breakfast. This would be our last warm meal for five days. 

Natures Valley is also where we would finish our hike. I could see the sign hanging above the bar for the Otter’s Arse, the famed complimentary drink shot that hikers get after proof of completing the Otter trail. The drink sounded awful, but I am sure that after five days of drinking treated water it might be the best drink in the world!

The Otter Trail is a dream come true for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts.The five day 45 km trail is the flagship of all hiking trails in South Africa. The trail is named after the Cape Clawless Otter, which hikers can see along the route. 

The trail hugs the Tsitsikamma coast as close to the pounding surf as possible. It zig zags along the coastal plateau and rises to elevations of 200 meters and drops to sea level along the beach.

Most of the Otter Trail is covered in coastal forest, with a marked difference between the forest north of the trail, and the indigenous forest along the coast. The Tsitsikamma Mountains rise from the northern edge of the plateau to 1600 meters. 

The mountains are the main catchment area of various short and fast flowing rivers which drain from the mountains in deep rocky ravines to the sea.  These rivers are perennial and the water is clean (the brownish whiskey or brown tea color is ascribed to tannins found in certain plants and soils). These water sources would be our drinking water, along the way.

These tidal rivers would also dictate our hiking schedule. On Day 3, we cross the Lottering River. If we time it right the river crossing should be fairly easy. Our only concern would be to make sure that our gear stays dry.

On Day 4, we cross the Bloukrans River. It is important to reach this river within a half hour of low tide, otherwise we are in for a difficult swim and subsequent rock scramble. Of course there is also the possibility of being swept out to sea!

The scenery along the trail is spectacular. Pounding surf and sheer cliffs are ever present. The breathtaking scenery is why we are so excited and the trail is so renowned. 

After our big breakfast we were anxious to get started. Our host helped us load everything into her new car and off we went. It was about a 40 minute drive to the National Park entrance and the permit office. 

We said our goodbyes and walked into the permit office. The park ranger found our reservation and then handed us the necessary paperwork. We filled out and signed all of the forms and releases. We were given a trail map and then watched the required safety video. The ranger made sure that we were familiar with the tide tables and the estimated times from the hut to the various rivers. The briefing confirmed that we would be hiking in the dark!

After 30 minutes, we were off! We were excited to be walking after spending so much time driving through South Africa. It was a little after noon and we had a short first day hike. Our hike from Storms River Mouth to Ngubu Hut, our first stop, was only 4.8 kilometers. 

We started the hike by winding along the edge of the coastal forest and scrambled along the rocks to Twee Riviere. When we hiked down to the beach we stopped to explore the Guano Caves.

After 3 kilometers we were at the first waterfall of our adventure. Ol and I watched a few day hikers swim in the natural pool. We had a nice rest and enjoyed the amazing view. So far, the hike was everything that I hoped it would be. We rock hopped and then had a brief climb. I was out of shape, so we just took our time. 

The scenery was more beautiful and the hike was more challenging than I thought the first day would be. Balancing on slippery rocks with my pack was a bit of a challenge. I hadn’t hiked with it since November and it showed. 

We rock hopped and then had a brief climb. I was out of shape, so we just took our time. This was the point day hikers were not allowed to pass. We had the trail to ourselves. If we met anyone else along the way, they would be our trail mates. If this was an easy climb, I was in trouble. Thankfully, from the top, we descended to the hut. No more climbs for the day.

Upon arriving at the hut we met the people that we would be sharing our cabin with for the next four days. Roy, a veterinarian, and Allan, an ophthalmologist, two South Africans from Cape Town had already staked claims on the bottom bunks. I knew that we would get along fine when Allan immediately offered Ol a shot of Jack Daniels when we entered the cabin.

Roy was a fountain of information. He told us stories of his earlier hikes along the trail and soon began telling us stories of his days as a large animal vet in South Africa. He was a natural storyteller and kept us entertained. Later we learned that he had written a series of novels loosely based upon his amazing experiences. His books are for sale on Amazon and I’m pretty sure I can get autographed copies for anyone interested in reading about these adventures. His book is called “Tales of an African Vet” (google him at Roy Aronson).

As we were getting to know our bunkmates, two additional hikers came to the door of the hut. Rummy and Paul, two young business partners and lifelong friends from Johannesburg would round out our cabin. These were the youngsters of the group and being in the best shape easily hopped up on the top bunks.

We all shared trail stories for the first day. Roy and Allan told us that they were surprised at how challenging the first day was. Roy had hiked the trail years earlier and he was worried that his conditioning wasn’t where it should be.

Ol and I got cleaned up as our new mates started talking about their elaborate dinner plans. They had carried fresh meat to cook on the first night. We settled on our granola bars and some biltong (South African jerky). We all marveled at the view and enjoyed our first evening’s campfire under the stars. The view of the Milky Way completely erased any sore muscles. 

I was the first to get settled into bed. I had just climbed in my sleeping bag, when Ol came to get me up. He wanted to introduce me to a civet cat in a tree by our hut. As we were looking at it we noticed another one by our campfire. 

The civet is a small mammal with a long raccoon type tail. I had to laugh. I had been so worried about baboons that I didn’t have time to think of the other wild animals we would be sharing the trail with. After all, this was Africa!

This was going to be an epic hike!

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